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Published Aug 3, 2022 4:00 PM

In the world of audiophile headphones, planar magnetics rule the roost. Many of the most popular headphones, even for listeners on a budget, use planar magnetic drivers, and for good reason: the level of detail and clarity they’re able to provide is outstanding. It’s no exaggeration to say that the best planar magnetic headphones will let you hear things you’ve never heard before and can breathe new life into your listening. If you’ve found yourself craving an upgrade to your audio experience, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll be breaking down the best planar magnetic headphones you can buy across six key categories to help you sink into your music like never before with the set that’s right for you.

How we selected the best planar magnetic headphones

I’ve been an audio enthusiast and headphone collector for over five years. I began my first foray into the world of audio as a kid, borrowing my dad’s Sony over-ears to sink into Metallica’s 1991 self-titled LP (aka “The Black Album”). As an adult, I contented myself with cheap earphones until I joined the tech press in 2013 and discovered a passion for all-things personal audio. Since then, it’s become a full-on hobby, and some of my very favorite listening experiences have taken place with planar magnetic headphones. I own nine different sets of planar headphones and have no plans to stop collecting them anytime soon.

For this round-up, I’ve gathered the best selections across six different product categories. Listening is a subjective thing, so I connected with Tony Ware, PopSci’s associate managing editor and a fellow personal audio enthusiast, to discuss our experiences and hash out what really deserved to be called the best of the best. Every choice we landed on was researched and cross-referenced with leading audio forums, Head-Fi and r/headphones, and a wide array of professional reviews and user impressions. They don’t often come cheap, but each of the headphones included in this list is exceptional and well worth your hard-earned dollars.

Things to consider before buying a planar magnetic headphone

Buying any pair of headphones can be a confusing mix of terminology and marketing buzzwords. This is especially true with planar magnetics, where the costs are often significantly higher. To help you cut through the noise, these are the most important things you should consider when shopping for the best planar magnetic headphones:

Price

Let’s get this out of the way first: planar magnetic headphones can be expensive. This is true of other types of headphones as well, but it’s especially common to see planar magnetics come at a premium compared to their dynamic driver counterparts. This is due to the complexity of the driver itself, as well as the pedigree of the brand producing them. As with all things personal audio, a high price doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to enjoy the sound more, so take the time to read reviews to get an impression of its real-world performance. If you’re considering a very expensive set, pay careful attention to the return guidelines to be sure you can refund or exchange it if it’s not your cup of tea.

How difficult they are to drive

Open up a headphone that uses dynamic drivers and what you’ll find is familiar to anyone that has ever seen a speaker: a cone or dome, behind which a magnet pulls a coil that vibrates the diaphragm to create sound waves. At the heart of planar magnetic headphones, however, are incredibly thin membranes imprinted with conductors and strung across magnetic arrays that manipulate them at incredible speed with low distortion.

Because most planars are physically larger than dynamic drivers (sometimes twice as large at 100mm versus 50mm, for instance), they often require more voltage to drive. It’s important to consider whether you’ll need an external amplifier to power them properly. This isn’t always the case. Efficient planars like the HIFIMAN Deva can be run straight from most PCs, smartphones, etc. without issue. It isn’t common, however, and manufacturers often design their headphones around the idea that listeners will have a separate amp in their setup.

The amount of power a headphone requires will vary from set to set. This is determined by two key specifications: impedance and sensitivity. The higher the impedance (measured in ohms), the more difficult the headphones are to drive. The inverse is true of sensitivity (how loud the headphone will get with a certain amount of power): the higher the sensitivity, the easier it will be to drive. The simplest course to determining the power needs of a headphone is to plug these values into a headphone power calculator. This will tell you how much power it takes to drive those headphones to different volume levels.  

Open- or closed-back

Like all headphones, planar magnetics come in open-back or closed-back varieties. These terms refer to the outward-facing side of the earcups and whether it’s sealed off to trap sound or uses a grille to let sound pass out the back (while protecting the delicate diaphragm inside). Each design has its benefits and drawbacks and there is no right answer for which is better. Instead, it’s best to understand what each term means and to determine what’s best for you.

Whether it’s the more affordable HIFIMAN Ananda or the ultra-premium line-up of ABYSS Headphones, open-back is by far the most popular design in planar magnetic headphones. It complements the strengths of the driver—detail, clarity, realism—by adding a natural sense of airiness and space to the music. This is referred to as soundstage. Open-backs don’t isolate sound well, which is their biggest drawback. Anyone sitting close to you will be able to hear your music and you’ll be able to hear the noise of your surroundings.

Closed-back headphones are much more common in mainstream sets like the Apple AirPods Max. These headphones usually offer a reduced soundstage but at the benefit of vastly improved isolation. If you plan on wearing your headphones to commute, or simply want more privacy to your listening, closed-backs are the superior choice.

Tuning

One of the most important considerations is also the most nebulous: how it actually sounds. Brands often refer to how clear and detailed their sound is, and make heavy use of buzzwords in their marketing. But what does that actually mean for how it compares to other headphones you’ve heard in the past? 

That’s where graphs come in. It can be difficult to test a headphone before buying it, so many manufacturers and audio enthusiasts provide frequency response graphs to give a better impression of how a headphone actually sounds. These graphs are essentially a swooping line that represents how the sound is balanced between the lows, mids, and highs. Take a moment to read up on how to read a graph and, wherever possible, take a peek at how the sound is balanced before hitting Buy Now.

Weight and size

While it’s not a rule, many planar magnetic headphones tend to be larger and heavier than their dynamic counterparts. This is because the driver itself tends to be larger and utilizes magnets on one or both sides of the driver to deliver sound. Both of these require a bigger earcup. Boutique audio brands also like to design their earcups around improved sound quality and unique aesthetics (even sometimes exotic woods and composites), which can mean anything from the egg-shaped windowshades of the HIFIMAN Arya Stealth Magnets Edition to the stylish rings of the Audeze LCD-4z. This doesn’t have to be the case, however, as the traditional design of the discontinued but still desirable Oppo PM-3 clearly illustrates. 

Regardless, be sure to consider where you’ll be using your headphones and your own comfort needs while you’re doing so. A heavier headphone can lead to sore spots on the top of your head. Likewise, a giant pair of cans can attract sideways glances you may not be ready for. 

The best planar magnetic headphones: Reviews & Recommendations

Now that you know what to look for when shopping for the best planar magnetic headphones, we’ve gathered the top choices across six categories for your consideration. There is some overlap in these choices, so consider them all and what works best for your budget and listening preferences.

Best overall: Audeze LCD-2 Classic

Audeze

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Why it made the cut: The Audeze LCD-2 Classics balance outstanding sound with a reasonable price, making them an accessible and exceptional choice.

Specs

  • Price: $799
  • Type: Open-Back
  • Frequency Response: 10Hz – 50kHz
  • Impedance: 70 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 101 dB
  • Weight: 550 grams

Pros

  • Great balance of price and performance
  • Durable metal construction
  • Outstanding value 
  • Pelican-style travel case

Cons

  • Boring appearance
  • Requires EQ to sound its best

The LCD-2 Classic may not be the pinnacle of planar performance, but it’s the best overall choice for users looking to balance outstanding audio quality with a reasonable price. The LCD-2 Classic takes the LCD-2 back to its roots, removing the current generation’s Fazor waveguide system, and simplifying some design elements to deliver a headphone that’s the perfect fit for the value-conscious audiophile. 

The LCD-2 Classic features the same driver as the LCD-2, which means you can count on a similarly great sound: rich, well-extended bass, lush vocals and instruments, and airy, spacious treble. The LCD delivers a moderately wide soundstage but features exceptionally good layering, so you can hear every note and every harmony, regardless of how far back in the mix it is. This also makes it a great choice for sound engineers and content creators who need to hear every tiny piece of the content they’re creating. 

At $195 less than the current LCD-2 (with its more richly appointed trimmings and audiophile articulation), there are some trade-offs. The biggest is the need to EQ these headphones to get them to sound their best. Out of the box, many users describe the mids as sounding “off” or “glaring” due to some strange mid-range peaks. These can be easily tamed with EQ software, bringing this headphone in line with its more expensive sibling. Put another way, these headphones do require a touch more effort upfront but can sound downright amazing after.

The construction has also been changed, swapping out the wooden rings on the standard LCD-2 with basic black nylon. The all-black construction does make the LCD-2 Classic look a little boring, but it’s also more durable and pairs well with the otherwise metal build. Speaking of metal, specifically of the musical persuasion, the right planar magnetic headphone’s coupling of bass slam and nimble technicalities can be great when paired with the genre; the LCD-2 Classic has particular synergy with death and doom to industrial. Also, contrary to early reviews, this LCD-2 also now ships with a hard-back pelican-style travel case for even more peace of mind.

True audiophile: Dan Clark Audio Stealth

Dan Clark

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Why it made the cut: The Stealth from Dan Clark Audio is super stylish and packed with technology to enhance the listening experience. 

Specs

  • Price: $3,999
  • Type: Closed-back
  • Frequency Response: Not disclosed
  • Impedance: 23 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 86-87dB
  • Weight: 415 grams

Pros

  • Huge V-Planar drivers
  • Stylish design
  • Outstanding bass and rich detail
  • Intricate tuning system

Cons

  • Big and bulky
  • Extremely expensive

If you’re looking for a top-of-the-line headphone custom-designed for audiophiles by audiophiles, look no further than the Dan Clark Audio Stealth. It’s a set that includes all of the latest innovations from one of the most respected names in the boutique audio business. It also breaks the mold with its closed-back design, making it a better fit for those times when you want to block the world out and disappear into your music.

This stealth bomber-like headphone uses the fourth generation of the company’s esteemed V-planar drivers, which are 20% larger than the last generation and deliver incredibly low distortion and outstanding detail. Enhancing these drivers further is DCA’s Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System, which not only reduces phase distortion for increased clarity but enhances treble performance without adding harshness or sibilance. 

When it comes to tuning, the Stealth plays it safe with a sound that’s close to the classic Harman Curve. That means you can count on rich, detailed bass that doesn’t overwhelm the other frequencies and plentiful details. The Stealth also manages to buck the stigma of closed-backs sounding compressed with a wide, airy soundstage.

The biggest drawback to this headphone really is its price. At $3,999, it will be hard for many listeners to justify. Those that do will be in for a treat, however. Dan Clark Audio rarely fails to impress.

Best over-ear: Audeze LCD-5

Audeze

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Why it made the cut: The Audeze LCD-5 is a top-of-the-line headphone that showcases the very best of what this industry-leading brand can do.

Specs

  • Price: $4,500
  • Type: Open-back
  • Frequency Response: 5Hz – 50kHz
  • Impedance: 14 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 90dB
  • Weight: 420 grams

Pros

  • Easy to drive
  • Great build quality 
  • Neutral sound signature
  • Much lighter than the LCD-4

Cons

  • Extremely expensive
  • High clamping force
  • Can be very revealing

Audeze is one of the biggest names in the business, and the LCD-5 represents the peak of its engineering. For its new flagship, the company went back to the drawing board, redesigning its fit and function. While it’s still unmistakably an Audeze headphone with its circular earcups, precision-cut grilles, and floating headband, the LCD-5 comes in a whopping 290 grams lighter than the former flagship, the LCD-4. It makes heavy use of magnesium and carbon fiber, so is made to last and you can look forward to longer listening sessions and less head fatigue over time (the clamp force is a bit stronger, though).

Part of the reason for its reduced weight is the redesigned driver system. The driver is now 90mm instead of 106mm and uses fewer heavy magnets to deliver its sound. The new driver has also been engineered with Audeze’s new Parallel Uniforce voice coil, tightening its response across its entire surface, improving resolution, and lowering how much power it takes to drive. No need for a monster amplifier here (though, like all summit-tier headphones, performance will scale the more you invest in your signal chain)! This driver system is paired with Audeze’s acclaimed Fazor waveguide tech to reduce distortion and phase interference. 

The best word to describe the sound of the LCD-5 is “revealing.” These headphones deliver all of the incredible detail you would expect from a $4,500 planar magnetic, but they’re more balanced and less bassy than prior sets from Audeze. Because of their outstanding resolution and mid-forward tuning, they’ll allow you to hear things you’ve never heard before, and old favorites in a new way, but that also means uncovering flaws in recordings or sound characteristics from your amp or DAC that may have missed with other sets.

Best closed-back: Meze LIRIC

Why it made the cut: The Meze LIRIC is a stylish closed-back in a world of open-back headphones and a great choice for isolation that doesn’t sacrifice an impressive soundstage.

Specs

  • Price: $2,000
  • Type: Closed-back
  • Frequency Response: 4Hz – 92kHz
  • Impedance: 30 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 100dB
  • Weight: 391 grams

Pros

  • Great isolation (for you and others!)
  • Stylish but minimal: won’t attract unwanted attention
  • Comparatively low-weight
  • Surprisingly wide soundstage

Cons

  • Pricey
  • No wireless option
  • Still a bit bulky

Closed-back planar dynamic headphones are few and far between, but the Meze LIRIC is the best among the more (relatively) approachable top-tier models. This headphone is packed with technology to make it the premiere closed-back headphone for audiophiles. The LIRIC uses a custom-made MZ4 driver, a scaled-down adaptation of the voice coil included in Meze’s flagship Empyrean headphone (which retails for $2,999), tuned to operate in a closed-back shell. Best of all, Meze has been able to overcome the biggest challenge facing closed-back headphones—reduced soundstage—with its all-new Phase XTM system. This may just be the most spacious closed-back option (of any driver style) available today. 

Mounted in a vented, purpose-built acoustic chamber, the LIRIC’s driver manifests a captivatingly deep staging without losing its imaging authority. Despite being a closed headphone, the bass is not overwhelming energetic, though the LIRIC can take well to goosing the lows. Mid-range gives vocals plenty of presence, while treble is fresh but not fiery. Pair the LIRIC with a source known for its top-end extension, you’ll experience more energy. Pair the LIRIC with a rounder source, you’ll up the musicality. What the LIRIC is, ultimately, is extremely friendly to equipment and EQ choices. 

Meze describes the LIRIC as a “portable planar,” and it’s meant to be taken on the go. At 391 grams, it’s lighter than many competitors at this price point but still made of durable magnesium and aluminum to withstand the rigors of daily life. The black matte leather-surfaced, copper-accented earcups are exceedingly stylish, if a bit bulky, and rotate to lay flat on your chest when you need a break, though the plush oval pads and wide headband promote long-term comfort. The biggest downside is that there’s no way to listen to the LIRIC wirelessly, so “portable” in this case still factors in toting around a cable. But the most unadulterated listening experiences are still found across a wire and the LIRIC is efficient enough to play nicely with almost any source, so this isn’t that big of a deal for most listeners—as long as you have a device with a headphone jack or an adapter.

Best earphones: 7Hz Timeless

Linsoul

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Why it made the cut: The 7Hz Timeless offers well-tuned planar sound at an affordable price. 

Specs

  • Price: $219.99
  • Type: Closed-back earphone
  • Frequency Response: 5Hz – 40kHz
  • Impedance: 14.8 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 104dB
  • Weight: 5.5 grams (each earpiece)

Pros

  • Very well-tuned, balanced sound
  • Full of detail
  • Good bass performance

Cons

  • Unusual shape 
  • Limited soundstage

Planar earphones are nothing new, but there are few that have been quite as well received as the 7Hz Timeless at its price point. The magic of the Timeless lies in its tuning. While others in this space, like the Tin HiFi P1, were criticized for their brightness, the Timeless delivers a warmer sound that doesn’t skimp on the bass. At the same time, it delivers an enjoyable amount of detail which combines to make these earphones a well-balanced buy at $219.99.

The Timeless isn’t perfect, however. Since it uses an in-ear design, the soundstage is narrower than any of the over-ear headphones included on this list. It also breaks the mold with the divisive, quarter-like shape of its earpieces. You’ll either be ambivalent about the shape or outright hate the shells—there doesn’t seem to be much in between.

One of the biggest reasons to choose the 7Hz Timeless is its impeccable balance of price and performance, but there are better options if you’re willing to spend more. For a truly audiophile experience, the Audeze Euclid has a more appealing aesthetic and delivers incredible sound quality but at the high price of $1,299. While not a small earbud (it can’t be to fit its 18mm drivers, bigger than the 14.2mm of the Timeless), the Euclid is comfortable. And that comfort extends to the frequency response, which is smooth and cohesive throughout. Bass is tight, mid-range spacious, and treble snappy without being sharp. Details are effortlessly retrieved and rendered across an uncluttered soundstage—one that’s astounding for a closed, compact earpiece.   

And if you’ve got $1,500 and want something that is exclusively yours, the Campfire Audio Supermoon is an in-ear monitor featuring 14mm, 2 micron-thick planar drivers in solid-body enclosures custom-molded to your ear canals. The bass is textured but controlled, mid-range is dynamic, and treble is honest (which can be a good or bad thing, depending on the recording). Planar IEMs are really coming into their own.

Best budget: HIFIMAN Sundara

HIFIMAN

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Why it made the cut: The HIFIMAN Sundara are detail powerhouses and a gateway drug to the wider world of planar magnetics.

Specs

  • Price: $349
  • Type: Open-back
  • Frequency Response: Not disclosed
  • Impedance: 37 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 94db
  • Weight: 372 grams

Pros

  • Affordably priced
  • Wide soundstage
  • Exceptionally detailed
  • Thin, low-profile design

Cons

  • Bass can seem recessed
  • Not great for portable use

To start off, budget is relative. To some (like our associate managing editor), the $1,299 HIFIMAN Arya Stealth Magnets Edition is an amazing “budget” pick because of its extraordinary bang for the buck when putting many options in the $2,000-$3,000 range to shame. But here we’re going to talk true budget, which in the planar magnetics world is under $500. So we’re talking about the Sundara, which has become one of the staple recommendations for new HiFi(man) fans and it’s not hard to see why. These headphones deliver a spacious soundstage and an incredible amount of detail for their comparatively modest price. In fact, it’s hard to find a better value in this space, which is exactly why terms like “giant killer” pop up so frequently in conversations surrounding it: these headphones deliver performance well beyond the $349 price point.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that balance is the name of the game with these headphones. Even though it offers good bass and treble extension, this isn’t what most people would consider a bass-heavy headset. Likewise, even though it offers a slim profile when worn, the cups don’t swivel to lie flat on your chest and there’s no travel case, so they’re still a better fit for listening at home than on the go.

Looking for something a little more portable but still great? The Audeze LCD-1, if you can snag one (it’s now discontinued), is an outstanding choice that solves the Sundara’s portability issues, is smaller, more stylish, allows you to rotate the earcups, and includes a travel case. Those benefits come at a higher cost of $399.99, less detail, and a more plasticky build, but it’s hard to argue with its still-great sound. 

Related, in a way, is the similarly priced Edifier STAX SPIRIT S3, which is quite a mishmash of branding and components, so let’s decipher. Edifier, a Chinese company with a firm foothold in the affordable speakers sector on Amazon (and beyond), bought the legendary STAX brand of electrostatic headphones in 2011. In 2016, Edifier invested in a minority share of Audeze. So, the STAX SPIRIT S3 is a wireless (but not noise-cancelling) closed-back headphone that, despite its name, has nothing to do with electrostatics (that’s a whole ‘nother tech for another time) but does feature Audeze’s Fluxor magnetic structure, Uniforce diaphragm, and Fazor phase management—and more than a passing resemblance to the LCD-1. Sonically, though, they’re a bit more reminiscent of the 7Hz Timeless in headphones form, offering a quick-moving body with plenty of detail balancing out bold but not boomy low end. It’s a clearly closed-back soundstage, so flat in comparison to its less-isolating brethren, but if you’ve got an Android phone that supports the aptX HD/Adaptive codec and are looking for some Bluetooth 5.2 headphones that travel well, the Edifier STAX SPIRIT S3 could be a flavor to savor.

FAQs

Q: Are planar magnetics worth it?

They absolutely can be, but like most things with personal audio, it’s going to be a matter of preference. Planar magnetic headphones can offer incredible detail and powerful presence without tipping into distortion, but the very best tend to be expensive and require more power to drive. Additionally, they often use open-back designs which bleed sound and let in surrounding noise. But there’s a reason many of the most popular audiophile headphones use planar magnetic drivers: they can sound incredible. 

Whether it’s worth it will depend on just how much you like the “planar sound” and whether it fits your budget. If it’s your first time, pay careful attention to the sensitivity and impedance and consider using a headphone power calculator to see if you’ll need a separate DAC/amp to drive your listening experience (our associate managing editor is particularly fond of the iFi xDSD Gryphon or Questyle M15 for a portable and the HIFIMAN EF400 for a desktop—all overperformers). As always, we recommend purchasing from retailers with generous return and exchange programs so you can audition your new headphones before committing to what could be a very expensive purchase.

Q: Is planar better than dynamic?

Not necessarily. Planar magnetic headphones have an excellent reputation in the audiophile community because some of the most popular models feature those drivers. They tend to offer exceptional detail for the price and, when tuned correctly, can deliver powerful bass and excellent soundstage. But, the same can be said of dynamic drivers. It really comes down to the individual headphone you’re considering.

Before pulling the trigger, be sure to read professional reviews from reputable sites like Popular Science, Headphonia, and Headphonesty. Also, take into account the impressions of real users on forums like Head-Fi and the r/headphones subreddit. While dynamic drivers are often cheaper (not always, see the Focal Utopia), there are many amazing pairs of headphones that use them.

Q: Do planar magnetic headphones have bass?

Do they ever—or, perhaps, can they ever. Due to the large size of planar magnetic drivers, they can be tuned to deliver powerful and outstanding bass performance. Because planar magnetics are so adept at delivering a nuanced listening experience, bass notes are often full-bodied and thick. Instead of being a simple low note or rumble, great planar magnetics allow you to hear rich, lifelike texture. It’s akin to going from an SD screen straight to 4K HDR. 

This kind of performance is not a given at lower price points, however. In fact, many affordable over-ear planar magnetics tend to lean away from bass and instead emphasize increased detail in the mids and highs. Many prospective planar fines hear wonders about the bass performance of planar magnetic headphones and then wonder why they don’t hear it among their first affordable sets. That isn’t to say you have to spend that much to have a bass-rich planar listening experience, but it’s important to research any headphones you’re considering buying to see just what area it excels in or if it’s a good all-arounder.

Final thoughts on the best planar magnetic headphones

Upgrading to a pair of the best planar magnetic headphones can transform your listening experience. Take the time to find the right set for you, whether that’s a big and bold pair of over-ear headphones or a small-but-mighty pair in-ears, and you’ll be able to experience your favorite songs like never before. They don’t always come cheap, but a great headphone is an investment that can pay dividends in your enjoyment for years to come. 

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